The Value Of Being Aloof: Or, How Not To Get Absorbed In Someone Else’s Abdomen
    By Mark Changizi | September 10th 2009 08:12 AM | 17 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Mark

    Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella 2009) and Harnessed: How...

    View Mark's Profile
    Male anglerfish are born with an innate desire to not exist. As soon as a male reaches maturity, he acquires an urge to find a female, sink his teeth into her, and grow into her. This evolved because anglerfish live in the dark ocean abyss with few mating opportunities.

    By giving up his life to be part of the female, the male can reproduce more often.   It’s not clear he can appreciate all the sex he’s getting, however, because much of his body and brain atrophies and fuses with her body. Nevertheless, that’s where male anglerfish want to be – that’s a full male anglerfish life.

    And you thought you had problems. At least you’re not partially absorbed in someone else’s abdomen. Let’s toast our fortune: We are not male anglerfish!

    Or are we?

    Although we have no innate drive to stick our heads into the sides of other people, we do have a drive to stick our heads into groups of people – into communities, tribes, villages and clubs. We’re social primates, and a full human life is centered on the communities we’re in, and our place within them. There aren’t many hermits, and most that are probably wish they weren’t. Communities of people have bulls-eyes on them that are irresistible to us humans. Although communities are necessary for a full life – e.g., family, bowling league, and civil war reenactment society – there are some communities that are especially damaging to one’s creative health.

    Creative communities – they are the creativity killers. For scientists, for example, their female anglerfish is the community of scientists, a community which is creative as a whole, but which tends to snuff out the creativity of individuals within it. Not only are these creative communities dangerous to one’s creativity, but they seductively attract creativity-seeking individuals into them like moths to a creativity-scorching flame.

    That creative communities are alluring to the aspiring creativity maven is not surprising: we all want friends who understand what we do and appreciate our accomplishments. What is surprising, and is not widely recognized, is the extent to which these creative communities are destructive. The problem for the male anglerfish is that his entire world becomes shrunken down, from a three-dimensional world of objects and adventures to a zero-dimensional world of gamete-release.

    The problem for us is that we’re equipped with a brain that, upon being placed within a community, reacts by severely shrinking its view of the world. Once the psychological transformation has completed, one’s view of the world has become so radically constricted that one cannot see the world beyond the community. 

    The source of this shrinkage is something called “adaptation,” or “habituation.” When you walk from a bright sunny street to a dimly lit pub, the pub initially feels entirely dark inside. After a while, however, your eyes habituate to the low light level, and you see it as highly varied in light level: it looks dark inside that mouse-hole in the wall, bright where the uncovered light bulb is, and, scattered around the room, you see dozens of other light-levels spanning the dark-light range. This is clearly advantageous for you, because you effectively began as blind in the pub, and minutes later could see.

    In order to make it happen, though, you underwent a kind of “world shrinkage,” in particular a kind of “luminance shrinkage,” where luminance refers to the amount of light coming toward your eye from different directions around you. When you first entered the pub, all the differing luminance levels in the pub were treated by your visual system as pretty much the same, namely “very very dark”; at that point in time your eyes were habituated to the wide world of luminances found on a sunny day outside.

    The “sunny” world of luminances differs in two respects from the “pub” world of luminances. First, the average luminance in sunny world is much higher than that in pub world. Second, and more important for our purposes here, sunny world has a much wider range of luminances than in pub world – from the high luminance of a sun-reflecting car windshield to the low luminance of the gaps in a sewer grating.

    Our eyes have the ability not only to adapt to new light levels (e.g., high versus low), but also to new levels of variability (e.g., wide versus narrow). When you habituate from sunny world to pub world, your eyes and visual system treat the tiny range of luminance levels found in pub world as if they are just as wide as the range of luminances found in sunny world. Your entire perceptual space for brightness has shrunk down to apply to what is a miniscule world in terms of luminance. This kind of world shrinkage is one of the many engineering features that make mammals like us so effective.

    All our senses are built with these adaptation mechanisms at work, and not just for simple features like luminance or color, but also complex images like faces. 

    In fact, our heads are teeming with world-shrinking mechanisms that go far beyond our senses, invading the way we think and reason. When we enter a creative community, varieties of adaptation mechanisms are automatically elicited inside us, helping to illuminate the intellectual world inside the community. Ideas within the community that were impossible for us to distinguish become stark oppositions. Similar mechanisms are played out for our social world – the hierarchies we care to climb, and the people we care to impress.

    At first we don’t appreciate the status differences within the hierarchy, even if we abstractly know them; but eventually we come to “feel” the gulf between each tier. While having these mechanisms is fundamental to our success in tribes, and was thus selected for, our creative integrity was not on the evolutionary ledger.

    Creative communities are dank pubs, and once we’ve optimized ourselves to living on the inside, our full range of reasoning is brought to bear on a narrow spectrum of ideas, a spectrum that we’re under the illusion is as wide as it can be. And so we don’t realize the world has shrunk at all.


    Mark Changizi is Professor of Cognitive Science at RPI, the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella, 2009) and The Brain from 25,000 Feet (Kluwer, 2003) ...

    ... and is aloof.


    Gerhard Adam
    Good article.  It would suggest that this exists for every social grouping or "community" that might exist.  In particular, it would seem that this may well be a reason we see groups divided up along ideological lines, where the only people they associate with and the media they're exposed to, tend to reinforce their existing beliefs and perspectives. 

    If there is little or no opportunity to absorb different perspectives, it tends to amplify the existing beliefs and make the opposition appear more sinister.  I suspect that in the political arena, especially, it tends to lead to less understanding and compromise, and more entrenched ideological battles.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Dear Professor Changizi:

    I am writing to respond to the article, "The Value of Being Aloof: Or, How to Not Get Absorbed in Someone Else's Abdomen."

    I understand that most human beings are driven to be social, and will adapt to various situations in order to fit into a specific society. The syndrome of being human is our dependency for attention, our need for contact, for constancy as seen in the formation of habits, for approval and acceptance of being good at something. Meanwhile, the other few billion-and-counting-others, the very same individuals who share similar qualities, are simply denying that desire that such individual would ever be good enough. I do agree that most individuals get sucked into certain dispositions or habitus for approbation. However, how is an individual supposed to relate to other individuals if we don't allow ourselves to enter the "dank pub" world, no matter how minuscule such world may appear to be.

    In creativity and imagination in scientific endeavors, do you suggest that a scientist should be more individualistic? What about collaborative efforts andteamwork?

    What struck me the most in your article was: "Ideas within the community that were impossible for us to distinguish become stark oppositions. [...] While having these mechanisms is fundamental to our success in tribes, and was thus selected for, our creative integrity was not on the evolutionary ledger." I think that there is no such thing as a pure concept, and the binary oppositions can always be displaced by a third constituent, which ultimately gives room for change. Change that is so often misunderstood. I very much believe that what most people call as an innovative change is merely recycling, an adaptation, of the old habits and projected onto a different media. What is innovative about innovation is the manner in which we recycle the old ideas to "push" the boundary of progress.

    Is it possible to know that an individual in stuck in a mental "box?" I wonder, how do you balance the compromise between relating to the community, if that is all that you have, while maintaining your own individual ability to transcend the rules and habits of such community that stifle progressiveness? I cannot stomach the idea the idea that every creative individual is doomed by his own society; what else would he have?

    Thank you for your time, and really enjoyed reading and thinking about your article.

    Anglerfish fish may be more creative than we give them credit for. Maybe the male anglerfish attaches to the female, loses the perspective of the "small fish" and shares the perspective of the larger female. Maybe they join together, place reproductive efforts on autopilot and enjoy fishing together for the rest of their lives from the same perspective. You might say that the male anglerfish dies to self, and becomes at one with the female, anglerfish creator.

    On creativity: I've experienced joy and sorrow while creating alone and in groups. Overall, the quality of the creative experience has had more to do with my personal outlook than whether I was alone or in a group. However, I believe if the majority of the experience becomes painful, ones creativity will eventually become limited. At this point it may be time to either go it alone for a while or find a new group.

    Thank you for an excellent read. You have perfectly explained to me why I find it so difficult to contemplate the nature of God whenever I enter a church.

    Mark Changizi

    Gerhard, I agree.

    Anonymous, what *I* do is a bit extreme. I really do actively try to stay aloof. For example, I have consciously avoided going to conferences for this reason. Bad for my career in that I don't network appropriately, but good in the long run -- so I am gambling! -- because I believe it increases my creativity, enhancing the odds that I eventually stumble onto a good idea (even if some previous community doesn't respect that kind of research). As for collaboration, I don't think it tends to help lead to big ideas. When a collaboration works, it is usually because there is effectively a leader or boss, and the others follow. (There are counterexamples, but I believe it is rare.) I do believe interdisciplinary approaches are crucial, but with the right training a *single* brain can be interdisciplinary, and has the advantage that the various parts of the brain can communicate orders of magnitude faster than a bunch of separate individuals. (Cities may be brain-like, but brains are more brain-like!)

    Thanks, all, for the comments.

    Nice work here. I am a somewhat creative kind of person. That is what has attracted me to your essays.

    I'm going to have to disagree on the collaboration issue. When I am trying to build or create something or solve some problem... I have a limited perspective. A good friend that I bounce ideas off of has worked in aircraft electronics in the military. I have nothing even close to those experiences. Whenever I am trying to solve even the most mundane of silly problems or thought experiments I set for myself, I find that a fellow creative, intelligent peer to be invaluable in solving problems or coming up with new ways to do something. It can't be ordinary Joe or someone that doesn't share my own interest in hacking the world around me or figuring out how to create new things. This has to be someone that relishes "what ifs" as much as I do. We can knock around, build up, and destroy dozens of ideas in 5 minutes.

    I'm not talking about some group of co-workers that have been given an assignment in their job. Just two folks trying to solve a problem. Recently we were talking about how to make a canoe more stable. I could never have come up with the creative solutions we proposed without his own quirky perspective contributing to my own creative process.

    Collaboration like that cannot help but accelerate the creative process. Requires a certain kind of person, but two brains are better at solving a problem than one. Unless one of the two is just stupid.

    Keep up the good work.

    My take on this article is that we should not avoid going into the dank pub but we must remember to come out of it. By exposing ourselves to different magnitudes of "worlds" we get to explore each world and see what makes it unique as well as what makes it similar to other worlds. By understanding other worlds and other worlds perspectives of us we gain a better understanding of ourselves.

    bjw. good point.

    Remember what isolationism did to Russia.

    Good article, enjoyed reading the comments.

    I'm coming at this from my own pub, as it were, unique in my own little box. It seems to me that the world of "sunny" luminance and "dark" pubs is not as distinguishable as light and dark here.

    For instance, I am at once able to remain integrated in my own social order here in Minneapolis and remain loyal to the pub where I most fit in, or rather, have dug my head into and lost a sense of self, but at the same time remain tapped into a sunny world of online blogs, where I am free to pick the olive trees of other cultures and integrate them into my own dark pub world.

    Its true, according to this insight, that I may only revolve around "pub" like information on the internet, for instance I'm on this site instead of Bollywood's newspage, but is that any different from wandering Central Park and catching tid-bits of conversation where no social groups are distinguishable?

    I'm curious if this thought can be expanded upon, as Its a bit dim in the belly of my anglerfish.'ve expressed very much my problem with the academy (although I'm in a different field). I, too, many times remain aloof because of the seemingly inevitable narrow mindedness that forms when one becomes too embedded. However, I've also found that rotating between many different creative communities sometimes feeds my creativity. Different ways of thinking, different ideas, different interests--all come together and create a synergistic effect in my own creativity. At least at times. ;)

    Garth Sundem
    Spectacular article, Mark. Thanks for posting. I'm enjoying the Vision Revolution!

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    I recognize this very much, myself. I began studying the history of science and ideas because I was really burning for the subject, and had a lot of thoughts about it. It soon dawned on me that too many of my teachers was much more interested in "socializing" me (i.e. have the "right" postmodernistic perspectives and philosophies) than care about what I really was saying and writing. Now I make what I am supposed to do, but I visit the university as little I can and have no desire to make a living inside the academic community - I can still write books and articles instead, and make it much better.
    Mark Changizi
    Thanks Garth and Rickard, for the comments. -Mark
    Great article, it is so obvious how narrow minded "intellectuals" have become. The schools and university's tend to all teach the same way and we get people coming out of them that can't think for themselves. I believe the dank pub is equal to the closed mind, only giving credence to what others around him in the dank pub have to offer and shunning the outsider standing in the doorway because the light from outside hurts their eyes and makes it hard to see clearly. And is not comforting to always be able to see your surroundings clearly? The bright light is painful and confusing. While that pain and confusion is temporary, we seldom let anyone stand in the doorway for long. We either decide to invite them in (usually because we feel they can conform to our ways in the dank pub) or we reject them and send them back through the door so it can be shut and the pain and confusion of the bright light extinguished. It would seem it is against our nature to let those with the new ideas, the "bright" ideas, the ideas that confuse us and cause pain into our pub. So until the scientific community lets those with different ideas in the pub, they are doomed to stay in the dark. At the very least if they were not so fast to slam the door, the new light might illuminate a part of their pub they never saw before and expand their horizon. Something to think about while I go and hunt some polar bears....

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    This is a great article and I totally agree that the scientific community is now like a bunch of people in a dank pub scared of bright light and alternative thinking people and ideas. I first went to university in the late 70's and am now back there 30 years later and the changes that have taken place are stunning. The majority of the students and lectureres that I knew used to all go to the students union bar at lunchtime between lectures and share a pint and a cigarette and happily argue themselves blue in the face about their own pet theories on the universe and everything else with anyone that was prepared to listen or argue with them. The students union bar was light and smoky with daylight flooding through the windows, packed to the rafters and heaving with life and creativity not the dank pub it has now become.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    However, to be fair, the 70s was probably an unusual period of academic freedom and discourse. Prior to that the dank pub mentality probably prevailed and Hugh Everett and his Many World's theory in the 60s was a prime example of this. Everett was ridiculed by the scientific community at the time and has since been recognised and given the credit he deserved. See
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    I wouldn't consider a Wikipedia entry 'recognition' - anyone can call anything a theory if they simply call it a theory.  This does not make it so in any way science recognizes.  'Without X nothing makes sense' is the stuff of religion, not science validity.

    I suppose I am that modern proponent of non-freedom and non-discourse if I don't agree that every bit of speculation over the last 80 years is equally valid.  I know Everett did and maybe somewhere in the many worlds interpretation, the many worlds interpretation is valid - but not this one.

    "We do not come to the Navier-Stokes equations by admiring water waves" and so the hoped-for result of the many worlds interpretation cannot be found just by continuing to look until it is.